Nicholas Volley (1950-2006): Single-minded figurative painter
13 May 2006
Nicholas Volley was a passionate, single-minded figurative painter.
He was born in 1950 into a working-class family in Grimsby. His childhood was both usual and unusual: he joined a band, rode a Lambretta and hung out with the local lads. But at home there was always art. His father painted a full-scale interpretation of El Greco's crucifixion in the garden shed and a copy of Van Gogh's Bridgeat Arks on the bathroom wall of their small terraced house. Nick Volley attended the local art school and then the UCL Slade School of Fine Art, where he was taught by William Coldstream, Euan Uglow and Patrick George. There Uglow educated him in the serious business of eating good food, drinking fine wine and having your own ideas about what art was.
When he was awarded the Boise Travelling Scholarship, he characteristically chose to spend it in Cézanne's Aix-en-Provence, and in 1979 he was one of a group of painters selected to show in the Hayward Annual. Following this he was represented by the Ian Birksted Gallery and Browse and Darby in Cork Street and his work entered many international collections including those of Paul Smith, John Cleese and the late Duke of Devonshire.
Although in his younger years Volley appeared to resent the fact that he needed to teach to supplement his income, in later years he was a popular, charismatic and enthusiastic teacher.
He was a painterly painter and a painter's painter, whose ideas about art almost always went against the tide. He stubbornly stuck to what he knew best, drawing and painting his family, his friends and the everyday objects which were important and familiar to him.
But his decision to paint in a traditional manner, so deeply inspired by Rubens, Manet, Van Gogh and Cézanne, was not to follow an untroubled path. He spoke angrily about trends towards video art and performance. He strove to reach that point when, in his own words, "painting becomes an emotional, intuitive experience without theory".
For all his strongly held views, in private he engaged in a personal battle with notions of modernity and how it might be possible to make a painting which was both of this world while also part of the tradition of painting which he so loved and in which he passionately believed.
He was exasperated by the rapid progress of technology, which he believed was eroding so many of the personal, intimate touches of life, like writing a letter with pen on paper. He doggedly avoided using a mobile phone.
His love of people was complicated. He wanted to paint pictures with figures but often found the stress of having another person in the studio almost too much to bear.
Volley's paintings were deeply felt, rigorously seen and never-endingly altered. Faces, people, objects, chairs and tables appearing and disappearing at the speed of lightning, which was sometimes frustrating if you had spent hours posing for him.
In 2002, in a large international retrospective at the Water Museum in Lisbon, he showed many of his early paintings as well as newer still-lifes, portraits of his partner Sylvia, views from the studio and landscapes showing fleeting glimpses of his beloved dog Florrie. And last October, in a suitably rough, unmodernised but beautifully lit space in Spitalfields, he showed his latest works, dark, possibly troubled but so "done". They looked majestic and grand.
Nicholas Andrew Volley, artist: born Grimsby, Lincolnshire 3 December 1950; married (one son, one daughter); died London 5 April 2006.
Sylvia Lahav, 'The Independent'